This story includes coverage of Thursday and Friday of MerleFest 2017.
The last weekend of April marked the 30th anniversary of MerleFest, making it the biggest and most exciting one yet. Each year, more than 75,000 patrons, staff, and volunteers come to Wilkesboro, North Carolina to enjoy an array of the top bluegrass and Americana artists that the world has to offer.
The rainy weather on Thursday afternoon did not keep the festival from kicking off into full gear. Jack Lawrence, an original MerleFest Five member, marked the start of the weekend at the Cabin Stage. After thirty years, he was both excited and in awe about the growth of the festival. He shared his memories of the early years, including playing on the back of a flatbed truck on the front lawn of Wilkes Community College, celebrating Merle Watson’s life with his closest friends. He went on to play classics such as “Eight More Miles To Louisville” and “I’m A Lover Of The Bayou.”
IBMA and Grammy nominated, Mountain Heart took the stage, marking their fourth visit to MerleFest. Members of this band grew up in the foothills of North Carolina, and spent their youth coming to the festival and playing in the singer-songwriter competitions that the festival offers. It was an honoring and humbling experience for them to play on the Doc and Merle Watson Stage again. The band kept to their roots while also adding in some blues-inspired tunes, including their hit, “Blue Skies,” featuring Josh Shilling on the keyboard. They ended their time on the stage with a cover of Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ In The Years,” and then Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm.” Mountain Heart’s enthusiasm throughout the performance showed that they were honored to have the stage.
Bluegrass legend and longtime MerleFest alumni, Del McCoury took the main stage next. Del shared his excitement for being back at the festival after a couple of years, and went on to describe his memory of his first time playing with the legendary Doc Watson. The experience he shared with Doc taught him the meaning of being a fearless musician and guitar player, bleeding into the remainder of his career. At the beginning of the set, Del expressed his concern about his allergies affecting performance, but his moral and stamina were high and mighty as usual. He and the Del McCoury Band went on to play classic songs like “Vincent Black Lightning,” “All Aboard,” “Rain And Snow,” and “Asheville Turnaround.”
Later in the evening, The Avett Brothers’ long awaited set finally hit the Main Stage. The rain didn’t keep the the festival goers from showing their love to the North Carolina natives. The Avett’s upbeat tunes had everyone stomping their feet in the mud as they played hits from their new album, while also tying in old fan favorites such as, “Murder In The City,” and “I And Love And You.” The band also played covers of George Harrison’s “Give Me Love” and Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” sending the crowd into cahoots.
Friday was a day full of sunshine, warm weather and great tunes. Peter Rowan, a bluegrass icon and MerleFest fan favorite, appeared on the main stage and the Americana Stage, giving the crowd two great sets to remember. Shortly after Rowan’s first set, Pete Wernick aka Dr. Banjo hosted a Flexigrass Jam over on the Creekside stage featuring Steep Canyon Rangers’ fiddling maniac, Nicky Sanders. This was a jam that displayed classic bluegrass style with an eccentric twist that left the crowd mesmerized by the brilliant sound that was created.
Other noteworthy acts Friday afternoon included the classic MerleFest Veterans Jam in Walker Center, where Jack Lawrence, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Peter Rowan and Joe Smothers took the stage together, displaying how great their chemistry is after so many years of playing together at MerleFest. Sierra Hull, 2016 Mandolin Player of The Year, brought her inspiring melodies and lyrics to the Main Stage, playing many great tunes from her new album Weighted Mind. Hull also did her take on Gary Jules’ “Mad World,” and also played a cover of “You Wanna Give Me a Lift,” written by one of her icons, Loretta Lynn.
Later in the afternoon, North Carolina natives Chatham County Line and Steep Canyon Rangers each had the honor of playing two sets. The Steep Canyon Rangers first said was planned to feature their good friend and frequent musical partner, Del McCoury, but he was unfortunately unable to make it. But, the crowd was not left disappointed when the King of MerleFest, Sam Bush, filled in the void. The festival was full of groundbreaking collaborations, including the The Transatlantic Sessions Tour featuring the best folk/celtic musicians from the United Kingdom and United States. The set was hosted by Jerry Douglas and Aly Bain with special guests James Taylor, Sarah Jarosz, Maura O’Connell, Declan O’Rourke, Karen Matheson, Joe Newberry and The Transatlantic Orchestra.
The quintessential MerleFest memory from Friday night was the long awaited performance from Leftover Salmon, whose last appearance at MerleFest was close to twenty years prior. The set was full of Salmon’s rowdy tunes to boogie down to, including their staple songs “Deep River Blues,” “Down In The Hollow,” and “Sing Up To The Moon.” The set included a special appearance from Sam Bush, who added an eccentric twist with his fiddle skills.